Salads greens are healthy, and we definitely need to eat more of them.
But of course, we eat salad dressing on salad, and the many choices of salad dressings can be overwhelming when trying to choose a healthy dressing. So I decided to take a good overall look at the dressing selection at the store in hopes of providing guidance during your next shopping trip.
The basics: Most salad dressings are made out of soybean oil, canola oil, olive oil and safflower oil or some combination of vegetable oils. This means the fats are generally healthy. We could argue the detailed differences among the oils, but in this context, I don’t feel that to be necessary (however, in general, I prefer dressings with olive or canola oil). Ultimately, you want a dressing that tastes good (this, of course, is different for everyone). The ultimate goal of salad dressing is to help you eat more vegetables. Remember the Old Italian proverb, “a little bit of olive oil helps the vegetables go down"? There is wisdom in that phrase.
So, how do you pick a dressing? I look at fat and sodium content. Let’s start with by discussing the fat levels in dressings. There are full-fat (~16g fat/serving), lower-fat/light (~7g fat/serving) and fat-free dressings. Personally, I like the flavor and texture of full-fat and light salad dressing and I keep a selection of both in our home.
Fat is necessary to help with the absorption of some of the nutrients we get from salads like Vitamin A, E, and some of the caratenoids.
Sweeter dressings tend to be lower in fat like raspberry vinaigrettes and honey Dijon, etc. The sweeter dressings are typically higher in some form of sugar (they are sweeter after all). So if you have diabetes, you would want to be more aware of that fact and choose lower sugar varieties or work the dressings into your meal plan by counting carbohydrates.
Fat-free dressings are fine of course, but except for a few standouts, the flavor and texture is wrong for me. But if you like fat-free dressings, please continue to use them. As for the fat needed to absorb nutrients, you can add fat to your salad by adding nuts and/or avocado which add wonderful healthy fats and flavor.
Sodium is the next thing I look for in salad dressing. I really wish we could take some sodium out of the dressings on the shelves. Many of the ones I like are higher in sodium than I would like. In the past I have mentioned a 150 mg sodium per serving guideline, but in reality, your choices are limited with this guideline. I think I would rather see people eat more vegetables than be stuck on a guideline, so I have relaxed my standards a bit.
Look for something with 200 mg sodium or less (especially if it is of the sweet variety). Then, if you have to go higher, try to keep sodium in dressings less than 300 mg per serving. That is still a bit high for my dietitian mind, but for my palate and the available dressings on the market, that will have to do. However, I will -- as I hope you will -- continue to read that label and make the lower sodium choice whenever possible.
Some good tasting salad dressings that meet the sodium guidelines are: